Birk's Eye View: Wrapping up the Big Ten meetings with a message from Kirk Ferentz, thoughts on expansion
CHICAGO - There wasn’t a ton of football news to come out of the Big Ten meetings with so much energy focused on expansion, but I had a quick minute to catch up with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz as he checked out of his hotel Wednesday.
Ferentz had a rocky start to his tenure as Hawkeyes coach - “We won four games” the first two seasons, he recalled - and said fans were clamoring for his head as recently as a couple years ago after back-to-back six-win seasons.
I asked him about those first few years in the context of Michigan’s recent struggles. The Wolverines are 8-16 in two seasons under Rich Rodriguez and coming off their first last-place finish in the Big Ten since 1962.
Ferentz said he saw progress back then, even during his team’s 1-10 1999 season, though it wasn’t apparent to most fans. Moreover, he said his teams just weren’t good enough to win most of the games they played those first two years.
A decade from now, I’d bet Rodriguez would say the same thing about his first two Michigan teams, they just weren’t good enough to win in the Big Ten. Sure, the Wolverines blew a couple games they should have won last year - at Illinois and home against Purdue, in particular - but they were also two plays away from losing to Notre Dame and Indiana. Their 5-7 record was about right.
Now entering his 12th season at Iowa, Ferentz is roundly considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are coming off an 11-2 season and have the guns to challenge Ohio State and Wisconsin for the Big Ten title this year.
As we said our good-byes, Ferentz smiled at his change in fortunes and left Michigan fans with a reassuring thought: “I think you’re close,” he said.
More expansion notes â€¢ While some of the Big Ten higher-ups would be OK with a name change, I think it’s a long shot the league re-brands itself no matter how big it grows.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon was asked about that possibility on Monday.
“We’ve been 11 (schools) for what, 20 years?” he said. “That’s a marketing decision. All I know is that that brand’s got a tremendous amount of equity. The Pac-10 hasn’t (always) been 10. I think there’s a heritage and a brand equity there that’s pretty powerful, but that’s not my call.”
â€¢ So when all is said and done, what schools will be joining the Big Ten?
“There is not a person in the room right now that knows the answer to that question,” Brandon said. “Everybody ought to take a deep breath and understand that it’s got to play itself out. There’s no way you’re going to get ahead of it.”
â€¢ Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he doesn't foresee any changes to the way the Big Ten evenly distributes revenue to its schools if it expands.
“I’ve been blessed to be in different models," Smith said. "Was a part of forming the Big 12, on that task force and helped create the revenue-sharing plan there. I was in the Pac-10. I know how those things work and don’t work.
"At the end of the day I think what we have really helps all the ships rise. So I would have a very, very difficult time going through expansion and ultimately changing our revenue-sharing model. I would struggle with that."
A prediction Every time I go on radio I get asked how I see expansion shaking out. After spending a few days in Chicago and digesting everything Jim Delany and everyone else had to say, here’s my best guess:
I think the Big Ten ultimately grows to 14 teams, with Rutgers coming on board to give the Big Ten Network more presence in the New York and Philadelphia TV markets and Missouri joining to expand the conference’s footprint south.
The third team’s a mystery. Obviously, Notre Dame’s the choice if the school wants in. (It was interesting that Delany referred several times to Notre Dame and its independence, albeit often in the context of the Big Ten’s last expansion pursuit, but wouldn’t talk specifically about other schools.) If not, one of Nebraska, Syracuse or Pitt make sense.
Sixteen teams seems like too many, 12 would be a buzz kill unless Notre Dame’s the one, but again this is speculation. At this stage, nothing would surprise me.